I keep meaning to review a few things I’ve been watching/reading lately. I have actually been allowing myself to reread a few favorites, which I haven’t in the past few years because I want to spend that time reading new stuff (and not-so-new) in my towering TBR pile. But this month I made an exception and reread Garth Nix‘s Sabriel, one of the classic 90s high fantasies that redefined what writing “high fantasy” should mean. It went beyond elves and dwarves to create a new world of necromancers, royalty, seers, the undead, and a little cat named Mogget. Okay, not this Mogget, but now you know (if you didn’t before) where I got the name.
I’m glad I took the time to go back to it, because I haven’t read it for a good eight years or so. I read it for the first time in college, when HarperCollins sent Lirael (the second book in the trilogy) to us to review at Leading Edge, the science fiction and fantasy publication I worked on at BYU (it’s an all-student-run semi-professional publication. The authors they publish are usually NOT students, but rather up-and-coming authors. If you’re looking for good short science fiction and fantasy to read, check out subscribing–it’s a pretty good deal). I didn’t feel I could review Lirael without first reading Sabriel, and I don’t think I even ended up reviewing Lirael in the end, but the series turned out to be one of my all-time favorites.
Looking at Sabriel as an editor, it’s a great example of the kind of approach to high fantasy that I’d like to see. Instead of taking Tolkien’s world and changing a few things (which can be fun, but it’s been done before), Nix created an original world in the spirit of what Tolkien did, and gave his characters compelling quests that came directly from motivations that the reader can sympathize with. The thing about high fantasy is not so much that it involves a world that includes elves, dwarves, and gnomes or whatever; it’s that it’s a fascinating world with an epic story. In Sabriel, not only was the fate of the country at stake–having grown up in Ancelstierre, Sabriel felt little connection to the Old Kingdom–her greater motivation was that her father’s life was in danger. Add in a cool magic system that pits the Dead against the living, and the Charter that controls Free Magic, and all these factors combine to a rich world with interesting characters for whom the reader roots. It’s a complex story within an interesting world, but the world is secondary to the characters and their personal stories.
Another story to look up, either in movie or book form: The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono. I just finished watching the anime of it from the early 90s on DVD with a friend, and it’s another rich, complicated world with several interwoven stories. The main character (at least for most of the anime), Youko, is a high school student who is suddenly spirited away to another world by Keiki, the kirin of Kei, one of twelve kingdoms. It turns out that Youko is actually from the other world, not Japan, and that when she was a baby she was caught up in a storm and deposited in her mother’s womb in Japan (this is something that occasionally happens–people are born from trees in the Twelve Kingdoms). So she never really belonged anywhere in Japan, but never really knew the reason until she came to the Twelve Kingdoms.
Spirited away with her are two of her friends from high school, Asano and Yuka. They draw the attention of the king of Kou, who doesn’t want Youko to ascend to her throne because kings and queens who come from Japan (called Kaikyaku, which I believe means something like “outsider”) tend to have kingdoms that thrive and he doesn’t want Kou to be shown up by another Kaikyaku ruler. The first arc of the anime–which I understand is also the arc of the first book–is how Youko comes to accept her role as queen, even though she never wanted to become one.
The second book and the second arc of the anime delves deeper into what a kirin’s role is–the kirin is a holy creature who has a human form and a beast form, and they choose the ruler by the mandate of the heavens. It’s really a fascinating system, mixing Buddist and other belief systems in a fantasy world. This is the kind of non-Western fantasy I’d like to see more of.
It’s too bad the TV series seems to have ended leaving us hanging on one story arc, and I know that only two of the books (originally published in Japan) have been published here in the U.S. so far by Tokyopop. So there are arcs for which I MUST know what happened still! Hopefully the books will do well here in the U.S. and we’ll get the books farther in the series that find out what happened to Taiki and the King of Tai, who seem to be mysteriously missing. But even with that thread hanging, the TV show is well worth looking up (Netflix has it, and I believe they even have it on their instant watching list, though I could be remembering wrong). I haven’t read any of the books yet myself, but several other people I know recommend them–so they’re on the list of books I want to read. But I can with authority definitely recommend the anime, with a caveat that it is from the 80s or 90s and the animation might feel dated to anyone who’s familiar with how anime has grown in the last 10 years. You’ll still love it, though.